Many of my reviews this year have been of books I've been meaning to read for ages, which have just gradually, patiently made their way to the top of my TBR list. But this one was a more spontaneous addition to my recent reading. I got an email from Nicola Slade, whose blog is here and whose mystery novels set in Winchester are now calling my name as well. Apart from letting me know she'd been enjoying the new Elizabeth Fair titles from Dean Street Press, Nicola was also kind enough to recommend two of her favorite, quiet, obscure titles from my period, which she thought I'd enjoy. The other title she mentioned was Catherine Cotton's Experience (1920), and it's been added to the TBR list as well, but something utterly superficial about Lorna Rea's name and the intriguing title Six Mrs Greenes made that the immediate choice.
The premise lives up to the intriguing title. The officious and imminently dislikable Mrs Rodney Greene has summoned the other five Mrs Greenes to her home for a dinner party that, in addition to bringing three generations of Mrs Greenes together, will also serve to celebrate newlywed Jessica's arrival into the family (though it will mainly, like most other things in Mrs Rodney's life, allow her to bully and stage manage everyone else). The novel is divided into six sections, each around 50 pages and each dedicated to one of the Mrs Greenes, whom we come to know and (sometimes) like.
A family tree at the beginning of the book helps keep them all sorted. First and foremost, there's elderly Mrs Greene, matriarch of the family, the Mrs Greene, slightly cantankerous (one doesn't envy her companion, Miss Dorset, who has a tragic past of her own) but somehow likable, still mourning the loss of her husband years before and sometimes a bit shaky on the distinction between past and present:
When she was tired she talked to herself, and her talk was a jumble of names. Her sons, her grandsons, her granddaughter, her granddaughter's husband, jigged about in her brain. They formed groups, advanced towards her in a solid phalanx, broke up and receded again. The pattern of their comings and goings was shot with pleasure at some remembered incident, or again with intense irritation that found vent in mumbled phrases. "She's always been a stupid woman."
We catch some glimpses of her feelings toward the other Mrs Greenes, particularly her two daughters-in-law, about whom she minces no words, but more poignantly we feel her sense of lingering loss:
"When a woman has lived with her husband and loved her husband for over fifty years, she shouldn't live on after him. She's only a cripple. There's no place left for her, and no power. I saw one of my sons marry a girl I didn't like, and the other a girl I despised. I lost Edwin in the war, and Edwin's son soon after. Geoffrey and I were old; we were on the shelf, but we still had our place in life. Now Geoffrey's dead, and I'm lost. I'm Grannie and Great-grannie; I'm an old woman, to be humored and treated kindly and encouraged, and taken here and there for her own good, but I'm not Mrs. Geoffrey Greene. She's dead."
She also thinks the idea of a dinner with all the Mrs Greenes is misguided:
"There'll we be, three widows and three wives, each of us supposed to stand for something, and the whole idea quite false. I'm not an old Greene grandmother any more than Edith is a Greene mother and Jessica a young Greene wife; I'm Margaret Hill, and Jessica is Jessica Deane, and we married men of the same name and the same blood, but nobody but Edith would ever expect that to link us up in a chain."
But the dinner's misguidedness doesn't make getting to know these women less intriguing. Apart from the Mrs Greene, there's her sister-in-law Sarah, Mrs Hugh Greene, likewise at a loss since her husband's death and childless as well, who finds comfort in her beloved nephew and his wife (on her side of the family, not Greenes). Presumably, it's Edith, Mrs Rodney Greene, imperious, shrewish, and emotionally needy, whom Mrs Greene merely doesn't like, and Dora, Mrs Edwin Greene, already a whiny martyr even before the loss of her husband in World War I and her son to a tragic accident, whom she despises. Then there's the current, modern generation, Edith's two daughters-in-law, Helen, Mrs Geoffrey Greene, an artist who furiously resists the traditional limitations of marriage but falls in love with Geoffrey anyway, and Jessica, Mrs Hugh Beckett Greene, the energetic newlywed. There's also Edith's daughter Lavinia, who is not a Mrs Greene but who seems to be Mrs Greene's favorite among her descendents and who seems to play an important role in the novel, possibly a symbolic one.
Following the six main sections, there's a short closing section of the novel. It was a bit anticlimactic to find that this section didn't actually include the women's dinner together, but perhaps that would have been asking too much. Rather, it features Edith's final preparations, a visit from Lavinia, and a slightly bewildering comment by Lavinia which ends the novel. I won't give it away, as it's the last line of the book, but it was intriguing enough that I'm going to have to go back and do some re-reading to figure out what on earth Lavinia means by it.
Perhaps it's best that the dinner itself be left to the reader's imagination. Indeed, it's hard to imagine the dinner living up to all the drama that has led into it. Apart from that, however, the novel made for some wonderfully entertaining reading. If the women occasionally seem a bit like types—the tough, resilient older women, the shrew, the martyr, the bohemian, and the perky young flapper—rather than fully developed, unique characters, I can't say that I gave it more than a passing thought. I picked the book up and didn't put it down again until I my eyes were too sleepy to focus or my lunch break was over, which is a pretty good recommendation in itself.
My thanks to Nicola for bringing Lorna Rea more centrally to my attention. She has been included on my Overwhelming List for some time now, but I had no details about her work. It turns out that Six Mrs Greenes was her first novel, followed quickly by three more—The Happy Prisoner (1931), Rachel Moon (1932), and First Night (1932)—and one story collection, Six and Seven (1935), after which she appears to have fallen silent, though she lived for another forty years.
I had already come across a Bookman review of First Night, which I believe is a textbook example of "damning with faint praise," but I have to admit that it rather makes me want to read the book and see where Rea got to with her writing…
As amusement "First Night" is excellent if ephemeral. It scintillates where it should, in the foyer, broadens into humour in the pit, touches sentiment in the gallery, and generally varies in mood and in tempo as the elf of Miss Rea's imagination insinuates himself into the breasts and brains of author, actor, critic, first-nighter and all the other cleverly drawn theatre-goers to whom she introduces us. It has almost as many good points as it has pages—brilliance, wit, humour, atmosphere, emotional skill, verve, gaiety. But there it ends, in brief amusement—the only end it could possibly serve. One looks in vain for anything more than an almost photographic record with its inevitable shallowness. Yet cleverness rarely or never keeps company with profundity and, superficial though it may be, one is grateful for such lively diversion and vivid portraiture as are here.
Then, while poking around a bit for this review, I came across this capsule review of The Happy Prisoner in, of all places, the Wisconsin Library Bulletin:
Lorna Rea, the author of Six Mrs. Greenes, writes a delicate little novel of a girl who, because she was deaf, had been shown only the beautiful side of life. When she is suddenly cured of deafness she is so hurt by the world as it really is that she gladly retreats into her own again. The technique is that of the short story, full of idealistic pathos. Attractively illustrated with wood engravings.
And I discovered that the Spectator (after, I should note, an utterly condescending dismissal of Elizabeth Cambridge's Susan and Joanna, along the usual masculine party lines) dismissed Rea's story collection as "tepid and banal," and added that "while Miss Rea will tell you all about the interior decoration of her heroines' flats, she tells you nothing about their characters." Well, I'm sure some of you will agree that this too sounds intriguing!